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76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor has moves and athleticism to show he's the real deal

Jahlil Okafor of Duke shakes hands with NBA

Jahlil Okafor of Duke shakes hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being drafted with the #3 overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2015 NBA Draft at Barclays Center on June 25, 2015. Credit: Mike Stobe

LAS VEGAS - Derek Fisher got a good glimpse of the guy who was drafted one spot ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, watching his own rookie try to match up with the graceful feet and moves of Jahlil Okafor.

It might have only been a summer league game at Thomas & Mack Center, lacking the fervor and intensity found in a regular-season contest. But it was a snapshot of life in the Atlantic Division now, the reality the Knicks coach will face when he game plans for the 76ers' 6-11 center.

"When he was selected third," Fisher said, "we knew that we'd have to see him at least four times a year probably for the next 10-15 years. He's a really, really talented player. There's no question that his abilities are going to translate and transition well to the league."

Okafor, 19, had been pegged as the top pick for the team that won the lottery. But the Timberwolves fell in love with Karl-Anthony Towns, the talented 6-11 big man who played under John Calipari at Kentucky. The Lakers, looking for that marketable eventual replacement for Kobe Bryant, were wowed by D'Angelo Russell's athleticism and star potential and plucked him off the board No. 2 overall.

Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie, despite having stockpiled two young big men in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid the previous two offseasons, wasn't about to let Okafor slip past the 76ers at No. 3, and chose the runner up for the John Wooden Award, which recognizes the nation's best collegiate player.

With the 76ers declaring Embiid lost for the 2015-16 season last week, Okafor's time is now. The moment he's craved since he was a kid has arrived.

"It doesn't really feel like I'm in the NBA yet," Okafor said. "It's still just kind of a surreal feeling because I've been wanting to be here [in the NBA] my entire life and I'm just in summer league. But it definitely feels a little different having all the fans here, and signing autographs and things like that."

Okafor, a distant cousin of 2004 No. 2 overall pick Emeka Okafor, held his own in the five summer league games he played, showing the promise as well as the parts of his game that need to be improved. Defensively, he has a way to go. Offensively, solid averages of 15.8 points and 8.4 rebounds were accompanied by a rough 9-for-19 from the free-throw line.

It's not necessarily about the numbers at this point for Okafor. The trick is building up self-assurance, a slow progression proven by the 270-pounder from his first game in the Utah Summer League to his final action in Las Vegas this past week.

"I think he's starting to see that he can score in a lot of different areas," 76ers assistant coach Kevin Young said. "He can get the ball in a lot of different areas and show that he's really effective in a lot of areas. And I think that once he realizes that and gets comfortable with it, he's going to be very, very explosive offensively."

There's a feeling-out process for Okafor and that began in earnest even more out here, when he had lunch with 76ers coach Brett Brown, piggybacking the frequent visits he made to Brown's office in Philadelphia after the draft. Noel also took it upon himself to bond with the rookie, talking to him and coaching him up on the bench.

Between those getting-to-know-you sessions and his numerous chats with Milwaukee Bucks point guard Jabari Parker, a fellow Duke product and native Chicagoan and someone he considers a brother, Okafor has tried to soak in as much as possible. He's going to be spotlighted consistently on a team that has been woeful.

Said Okafor: "I am ready. I was the No. 1 player out of high school, so I've always had attention. I went to Duke University, one of the biggest schools in the country, and won a national championship. I'm used to attention and I think I will handle it pretty well."

If he can, controlling things with the same precision and grace in which he operates and maneuvers down low on the blocks, Okafor has all the tools to be someone who can reverse this small ball trend the Golden State Warriors just rode all the way to their first NBA title since 1975.

"The post game seems to be getting looked at as though it's dead," Fisher said. "But I think Okafor has the type of game that will make people question why the inside game is so-called 'going away.' Because the closer you can get to the basket, the better."


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